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The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower: A Biography of C. S. Forester's Famous Naval Hero

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Many know of Horatio Hornblower's exploits during the Napoleonic Wars through the novels of C.S. Forester, but how many know the true Hornblower—the man who rose from Midshipman to Admiral of the British Fleet? Using Hornblower family papers discovered in the 1970s, C. Northcote Parkinson has set the record straight in this authoritative biography.


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Many know of Horatio Hornblower's exploits during the Napoleonic Wars through the novels of C.S. Forester, but how many know the true Hornblower—the man who rose from Midshipman to Admiral of the British Fleet? Using Hornblower family papers discovered in the 1970s, C. Northcote Parkinson has set the record straight in this authoritative biography.

30 review for The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower: A Biography of C. S. Forester's Famous Naval Hero

  1. 5 out of 5

    David Eppenstein

    This book was a surprising little find if I do say. I don't recall where I found this book but since it was published in 1970 I can only imagine I found it in a used bookstore that I frequent. I always assumed it was a book about life in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Era much like "Patrick O'Brian's Navy", another book I have on the same subject. I was wrong. While it does detail some information of navy life at that time it is actually a biography of Horatio Hornblower. Wait! A biograp This book was a surprising little find if I do say. I don't recall where I found this book but since it was published in 1970 I can only imagine I found it in a used bookstore that I frequent. I always assumed it was a book about life in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Era much like "Patrick O'Brian's Navy", another book I have on the same subject. I was wrong. While it does detail some information of navy life at that time it is actually a biography of Horatio Hornblower. Wait! A biography of Horatio Hornblower you say! Isn't Hornblower a fictional character create by C.S. Forester? Well that's what I always thought. As a fan of this genre of fiction I now find myself really embarrassed to admit not knowing that Hornblower was a real person. I always thought him a fictional character that may have been based on a real person just as O'Brian's Capt. Jack Aubrey was based on Cochrane. Now I was really intrigued so I did some research. Wikipedia said Hornblower was fiction. Now what is going on? This book is really a good biography and the late author was no lightweight. The detail and obvious research done for this book is quite extensive. Well, to my further embarrassment, I failed to read the dust jacket which mentions that it is a FICTIONAL biography of Horatio Hornblower. I need to read these dust jackets more often and more closely even if the book is found at a half priced bookstore and a real bargain. But the book is a really good and thorough biography. It's so good in fact that even knowing that it is fiction I still can't help but doubt that it is fiction. I even tried researching some of the footnotes the author cites as authority for his statements but failed to track any of them down. I guess I have been fooled so completely that I can't believe the truth even when it is presented to me. Could a better endorsement of the book be had? I think not.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Anita Williamson

    I loved this book. I actually thought Horatio Hornblower was a real person because of the way this "Biography" was written. I remember thinking, Who would read fiction when this guy's life is far more interesting. Needless to say it was like waking up and finding out the Easter Bunny wasn't real when I learned that I had been "duped". It is still a very interesting book and well worth reading if you like the Horatio Hornblower books.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Deb Oestreicher

    This fictional biography was highly entertaining, not least for its fabricated biographers' obstacles (e.g., buildings (entirely invented by the author) no longer standing, papers (also invented) somehow gone missing...) The book offers a lovely opportunity to revisit the adventures of the Hornblower novels in the context of a whole life--Northcote comes up with persuasive backstory to provide a foundation for Horatio's aptitudes (he comes from a family of engineers), and also provides some back This fictional biography was highly entertaining, not least for its fabricated biographers' obstacles (e.g., buildings (entirely invented by the author) no longer standing, papers (also invented) somehow gone missing...) The book offers a lovely opportunity to revisit the adventures of the Hornblower novels in the context of a whole life--Northcote comes up with persuasive backstory to provide a foundation for Horatio's aptitudes (he comes from a family of engineers), and also provides some background on the politics of naval promotion in the late 18th and early 19th century, which puts the rate of Hornblower's advancement in useful context. Northcote also skillfully interweaves fictional and actual naval history, so that he gives Hornblower opinions about the Crimean War (which have no place in the novels), steamships, and so forth. Altogether, very well done.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Owen Jones

    As it happens, there really was a Horatio Hornblower and this book covers his life in the more formal perspective of a biography. It's somewhat surprising to see that Hornblower's "other" biographer, C. S. Forester, stuck pretty close to the known facts in his fictionalized treatment of the Admiral's life. I say "somewhat" because the author of the biography, C. Northcote Parkinson - the same man who coined "Parkinson's Law" - had access to some papers that Forester did not. Mr. Parkinson happil As it happens, there really was a Horatio Hornblower and this book covers his life in the more formal perspective of a biography. It's somewhat surprising to see that Hornblower's "other" biographer, C. S. Forester, stuck pretty close to the known facts in his fictionalized treatment of the Admiral's life. I say "somewhat" because the author of the biography, C. Northcote Parkinson - the same man who coined "Parkinson's Law" - had access to some papers that Forester did not. Mr. Parkinson happily provides a good preface to the work wherein he gives C. S. Forester full credit for his work as well as giving an account of the writing of the formal biography. There is new material in this biography not covered in the novels. There is good coverage of Hornblower's early life up to the time of his joining the Justinian as a midshipmen. Parkinson's treatment of the flag incident is sublime being both succinct and complete as well as presenting a particular problem and Hornblower's solution of it. Not surprisingly, Parkinson also covers Hornblower's old age, retirement and family. He does not indulge in the psychological analysis so beloved by more modern biographers and the book is the better for it as there is less implicit judgment of his subject. That is not to say there is no judgment, there certainly is, it's just more open and honest. The book (I have the Penguin version, reprinted in 1973) includes a number of photographs, some maps and a few verbatim letters and 6 appendices making up a total of 300 pages. This biography stands well on its own and makes a very satisfying accompaniment to the well known novels. I am less pleased with the movie and TV versions due to the usual Hollywood treatment (why do movie makers feel so compelled to rewrite the work of better writers than themselves??) but that's not a matter for this review. I highly recommend this book to any Hornblower fan and even to those who are not fans.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    A Biography of a fictional hero how novel. I loved the Hornblower books and while this is okay it covers a lot of minutia, like he and Barbara’s love life, that were not covered in the books for good reason in that it’s not that interesting to the people who like the books. .

  6. 4 out of 5

    Stuart Dean

    A fictional biography of Horatio Hornblower. Supplemented by fictional letters from fictional characters covering some of the gaps in the Hornblower Saga, written by a biographer who has discovered a cache of Hornblower's lost papers. Really well written, the events covered in C.S. Forester's books are given a quick synopsis while the events not covered are covered in detail. These are well done and very interesting, and fit well within the the canon. Some questions are answered about the backgr A fictional biography of Horatio Hornblower. Supplemented by fictional letters from fictional characters covering some of the gaps in the Hornblower Saga, written by a biographer who has discovered a cache of Hornblower's lost papers. Really well written, the events covered in C.S. Forester's books are given a quick synopsis while the events not covered are covered in detail. These are well done and very interesting, and fit well within the the canon. Some questions are answered about the backgrounds of important characters which explain their actions, and much time spent delving into Hornblower's somewhat mysterious background and his later days. The addition of Hornblower's nephew adds much to the history, and the life of Hornblower's son is also covered. Even covers the Hornblower family line, from his Grandfather right down to the present Viscount Hornblower. An entertaining book even to those who have not read the Forester books. This would have received five stars if not for the letter from Hornblower at the end which answers some questions better left unanswered.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Reni

    Almost DNF. How times have changed. If you nowadays dare to even mention Hornblower in your own work of fiction the Forester estate will sue you to hell and back, but back in the 70's people could publish fictional biographies of the character! I think The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower works best as a companion to the Hornblower novels. Not to be read before the novels, not to be read a while after, but best read while you're going through the stack. This is because this fake biography doe Almost DNF. How times have changed. If you nowadays dare to even mention Hornblower in your own work of fiction the Forester estate will sue you to hell and back, but back in the 70's people could publish fictional biographies of the character! I think The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower works best as a companion to the Hornblower novels. Not to be read before the novels, not to be read a while after, but best read while you're going through the stack. This is because this fake biography does a good job of putting the stories into their historical context. And context is again used to even explain away a couple of inconsistency and mistakes Forester happened to write into his books, which is an achievement on its own. In fact, I do love this book for the work that went into it, connecting every little short story to a bit of history. And then there are all the drawings, maps and portraits that had to be created to illustrate this volume like a proper modern biography, not to mention that this work of fiction even comes with appendices, footnotes, an index and a short bibliography consisting of actual works of non-fiction. With all these lovingly created extras you can understand why a couple of readers who had never heard of Hornblower before would become confused and believe the character to be an actual historical figure. Sadly, apart from all that the text is pretty boring. Apart from the clever way the book ties in the fictional events with history and explains certain quirks of the characters with knowledge of the times they would have in the book holds little value to fans. Of course the next in its summaries of the events of the novels never reaches the excitement of these novels. And for those parts especially the reader is better off just reading the actual novels instead, and referring to The Life and Times only when they desire a quick summary of the historical and societal context of a chapter. Even the bits that this text invents about Hornblower (as the novels didn't cover his whole life) on occasion read a bit lack-lustre. The text comes alive especially when the author invented from one character to another, and occasionally even to a historical figure, but it simply wasn't enough to keep me entertained over 300 pages. As said, this would probably work much better if not read on its own, but during future re-reads of the Hornblower books. Oh, and I take it one of the appendices occasionally causes a minor stir in Hornblower fandom, namely the letter in which Hornblower admits to not only having been the one to have thrown Captain Sawyer down the hatch, injuring him, but in which he admits to having intended to murder the man on two separate occasions. I understand now why this keeps causing a stir. First of all, I find it somewhat out of character for Hornblower to not only write a letter confessing all of this (his conscience might have made him do it), but keeping that letter and having it delivered to a future descendant. I would have assumed he would have had that letter destroyed after his death, at least. I don’t have a problem, however, with believing that Hornblower did indeed throw the captain down the hatch (even the novel itself hinted very strongly at this, and Bush did keep asking – unlike the TV movies, whose narrative ultimately demands that the viewers believe Hornblower guilty, while the way the scene was actually portrayed always has me convinced that there’s no way TV!Hornblower did it… come to think of it, I like the series, but they really screwed up those two episodes royally). But sending in Wellard to “finish off” Sawyer during the fight with the Spanish prisoners kind of strikes me as out-of-character, even for someone as pragmatic as Hornblower. So, no, I am not very fond of that appendix either, as are most fans, apparently. I'd rate this book something between two and three stars, because it is pretty convincing as a fake biography, even if ultimately a lot more dry and unexciting than it needed to be (which is sad, because Mr Parkinson could write very wittily, even in genres where it didn't belong, like, um, actual biographies of real life people! :p). But, alas, goodreads forces me to decide between two and three stars, so I'm going with two, for now. Until I re-read the Hornblower novels, when I might change my rating to three stars if this fake bio proves as useful as I imagine it to be.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lucy Cokes

    A quick note: this book is a work of fiction, and a supremely well executed one, too. Parkinson writes the biography as if Hornblower was a real man, and it is clear that the amount of research that went into it really helped to urge the narrative along. Parkinson has been absurdly clever with the way he produces new evidence, paintings and images, all adding to the Hornblower legend. As other reviewers have said, I think it is best to read this book during your reading of the Hornblower series. I A quick note: this book is a work of fiction, and a supremely well executed one, too. Parkinson writes the biography as if Hornblower was a real man, and it is clear that the amount of research that went into it really helped to urge the narrative along. Parkinson has been absurdly clever with the way he produces new evidence, paintings and images, all adding to the Hornblower legend. As other reviewers have said, I think it is best to read this book during your reading of the Hornblower series. I've been reading the series since before 2012, and have only just (reluctantly) finished it. The biography provided me with an opportunity to recap the details of the novels in the series, while filling in gaps in-between as well. It has a good ending to Hornblower's story, rounding everything off in a way that Forester did not have the opportunity to do. It actually bought tears to my eyes when reading about Hornblower's eventual death. I have to agree with others that the revelations in the appendix are quit out of character for Hornblower, and where I did not completely agree with them, that particular part of the appendix can be ignored in the context of the overall story. Other readers have commented that the biography is actually quite dry: however, this fictional work of non-fiction had me entranced, and I thought the very nature of it would be dry (as a piece of non-fiction) so further convinced me that this biography was in fact, real. It is masterfully created, and it would be interesting if this 'fictional biography' thing occurred more often...though of course copyright gets in the way nowadays. This must be the best bit of fan fiction I've ever read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Michael Smith

    The author is best known for his classic on politics, management, and economic psychology, Parkinson’s Law, but he also wrote a number of books in military and naval history, and was, in fact, a professor of history at Harvard, among other places. He was also a great admirer of one of the Royal Navy’s foremost heroes in the wars against the French Revolution and Napoleon, and was fortunate (he says) to have come across a trove of letters and documents deposited by Admiral the Viscount Hornblower The author is best known for his classic on politics, management, and economic psychology, Parkinson’s Law, but he also wrote a number of books in military and naval history, and was, in fact, a professor of history at Harvard, among other places. He was also a great admirer of one of the Royal Navy’s foremost heroes in the wars against the French Revolution and Napoleon, and was fortunate (he says) to have come across a trove of letters and documents deposited by Admiral the Viscount Hornblower, to be released a century after his death -- which was 1957. Thus, we now know Hornblower’s own thoughts on his career, about his fellow naval officers, and regarding other relevant events of the day -- and, most important, just what happened to the young man’s commanding officer in Lieutenant Hornblower. Parkinson does a lovely job of leading the reader through a carefully orchestrated mix of real and fictional history (as C. S. Forester himself did) and fans of the series, and of naval historical fiction generally, will enjoy the journey.

  10. 4 out of 5

    David Bird

    After seeing my copy of this, my father said, "I had always thought Hornblower was fiction." Well, yes. Parkinson's book is quite fun. He faced challenges in ironing out a story that had been composed out of sequence, with inconsistencies. But he finds ways to take advantage--showing Hornblower to be the beneficiary of outrageous Wellesley-granted Old Corruption in getting Bush as commander of a 74 within 12 months of gaining post rank, for example. And he suggests that the title was also the re After seeing my copy of this, my father said, "I had always thought Hornblower was fiction." Well, yes. Parkinson's book is quite fun. He faced challenges in ironing out a story that had been composed out of sequence, with inconsistencies. But he finds ways to take advantage--showing Hornblower to be the beneficiary of outrageous Wellesley-granted Old Corruption in getting Bush as commander of a 74 within 12 months of gaining post rank, for example. And he suggests that the title was also the result of shameless begging. The contextualization of Hornblower--suggesting that he was more of a proto-Victorian than a true figure of the his time anticipates Patrick O'Brian's creation of Aubrey as the antithesis of Hornblower's pained virtue. Forester often seems unsophisticated compared to O'Brian, but one instance here, where Parkinson 'solves' an outstanding question actually highlights Forester's effectiveness in having left it vague.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    I've read and enjoyed the entire Horatio Hornblower series, but found the majority of this mock biography to be exceedingly dull. I found the writing style to be quite dry. I had some interest in the early account of Hornblower's life pre-Navy, but after that, much of it, of course, is just a quick retelling of the series, and I didn't enjoy most of the in-between tidbits. By the end of the book, I was skimming and just waiting for the thing to be done. I absolutely did not like the appendix ans I've read and enjoyed the entire Horatio Hornblower series, but found the majority of this mock biography to be exceedingly dull. I found the writing style to be quite dry. I had some interest in the early account of Hornblower's life pre-Navy, but after that, much of it, of course, is just a quick retelling of the series, and I didn't enjoy most of the in-between tidbits. By the end of the book, I was skimming and just waiting for the thing to be done. I absolutely did not like the appendix answering the Captain Sawyer question, multiple things about it that I found out of character. No interest in ever reading this book again.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Curtiss

    This incorporates the entertaining conceit that C.S. Forester's character Horatio Hornblower was a real-life naval hero, instead of a fictitious character modeled on the career of Admiral Lord Cochrane. It follows the purported real-life career of Hornblower from his childhood as a doctor's son, his first entry into the service, and fills in the gaps of Forester's 11-volume chronicle throughout his subsequent nabval career.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Chris Callaway

    Reached the 100 page mark and punted. The idea of a biography of a literary character was interesting, and Northcote knows his Royal Navy stuff. But he doesn't give much narrative detail to make Hornblower's adventurous life come to detail. Instead, you get a stereotypically British, understated detachment. Nor do you get much psychological exploration of Hornblower's character.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Joanna

    I love the conceit of this book, a biography of an entirely fictional character. I enjoyed the imagined details regarding Hornblower's later life, and the faux correspondence it includes. But I dislike the dry recollections of battles and events that happened in far more lively fashion in the pages of the actual Hornblower novels.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    Don't get me started on Hornblower. This book treats him as though he were real in an entirely amusing way. It is pretty good and a wonderful companion to the hornblower series. C. Northcote Parkinson is another nautical writer. I've read another of his books. Life and Times is really good and I recommend it to fans of Hornblower.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Joyce Reynolds-Ward

    An interesting summary of the Hornblower canon if you've only read one or two of the books and want to know the entire arc of Hornblower's career. If I was more of a Hornblower follower I'd probably find a lot more in-jokes and references than I did.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Rod

    Finally, an honest, complete description of the great (though flawed) admiral's life. Thanks to this work, his estate at Boxley House may become as well visited by tourists as the rooms at 221B Baker Street, home of the great consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Michael Plas

    It sounded much better than it actually is. The writing is a bit dry. I realize that this is a fictional biography, but still it requires some sort of storytelling. I did appreciate the analysis of certain disputed questions from the books.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jerry Haigh

    A clever "reconstruction" of the life of CS Forester's iconic naval character. Check the "portrait" of Hornblower

  20. 5 out of 5

    Vicarage

    Two copies

  21. 5 out of 5

    Stven

    It's an interesting idea for a book, but that's the best thing about it.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    I liked the entire Hornblower books a lot!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jrohde

    amazing - this guy was a real person - I love the entire series which I reread to relax - far better than the Albury series

  24. 5 out of 5

    Joe AuBuchon

    A biography of Horatio Hornblower written as though he lived as a real person and not someone who only lives in our imaginations.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Warren

    In many ways a remarkable piece of fan fiction, this book has a fatal flaw: it is as dry as a rusk, and deadly dull. For the Hornblower completist only.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Carl

  27. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Anderson

  29. 4 out of 5

    Brooke Forney

  30. 5 out of 5

    Laweless

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